Art and biology have been inexorably intertwined since the earliest stages of humanity. Historically, humans have used depictions of the human body to not only tell stories, but also to understand our physiology. From The Woman of Willendorf, to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp to Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic, the search for understanding of the human body has manifested itself through art making.
Following this tradition is the work of painter Diane Nelson, who has made a practice of re-imagining of the integration of biology, medicine and fine art. Nelson’s previous career as a medical illustrator and art director has imbued her skillset with a mastery of representational imagery, as she illustrated medical textbooks, anatomical charts, and courtroom exhibits, and created original three-dimensional models. Since Nelson’s departure from the world of illustration, she has built upon this unique ability for rendering, pushing her practice to a place that is more complex and also more emotive.
In her newest body of work, Nelson takes a unique, multilayered approach to her media, a process that puts her practice firmly within a contemporary context. Beginning with pencil or charcoal, her works are then digitized and layered with digital imagery. The final stage is a selective application of paint over ink pigment printed on canvas, which bear her distinctive aesthetic that is both carefully detailed, and fantastically imaginative.
Pattern and Inspiration
Representation in contemporary art can be a burden on many artists, for whom the challenge of creating something new from observation can be daunting. Nelson is in a particularly unique position because of her extensive experience looking at aspects of nature that most people do not. Nelson has harnessed the microscopic world that dictated much of her previous career, drawing from it its curious palettes, lines, shapes and movements.
In works like moving forward, the patterns that compose the painting’s background could be the quite literal interpretation of the actual biological forms. The pattern motif then continues as the bent figure is repeated over itself, and patterns swirl in the hair of the representational figure in the middle ground. In this way, the microscopic is brought to the forefront, infusing the paintings with the beauty of the unseen world.
Drawing from a Surrealist influence, Nelson’s compositions often contain the strange, hallmarks of a dreamscape: hazy atmospheres, unusual landscapes and an ambiguous sense of space. In her work, across time, the rather androgynous male figure is situated at the forefront of a fluid, violet background. These elements of this unreal landscape seemingly wash away the horizon line, and are even visible through the transparent areas of the figure.
The figure is almost omnipresent in Nelson’s works, occasionally opaque, but very often transparent, as in across time, and cellular element. Sometimes, the viewer can see through the figure to the background, while in other cases, the transparency is enacted as the ability to view the biological inner workings of the figure. In both instances, this transparency entices Nelson’s viewers to look beyond the composition and delve into the metaphorical possibilities inherent in her content.
Nelson has a unique ability to capture notions of humanity through biological and formal elements, as well as metaphorical ones, using the figure to do so. Figures in Nelson’s works are painted in very specific poses; in on many layers, the male figure kneels, reaching upwards and facing away from the viewer, while in beyond herself, a female figure stretches one arm out from a seated position. In both works, the figures maintain calm facial expressions, while their limbs evoke the agency and progressive motion of the symbolic “power” and “freedom” the artist strives for in her practice.
Analysis and Observation
Though Nelson has departed from much of the clinical aspects of medical illustration, what still remains from that practice is a distinct sense of analysis, as if the artistic process has become the vehicle for investigating the human condition. A vague awareness of physiological analysis can be detected from her medical experience, though a much more prominent feeling of psychological or emotional analysis occupies these works, perhaps a feature from the impact of her studies of Surrealism.
Most science, analysis and observation come from an objective point of view, though one can’t help but feel a subjective, and introspective approach to the imagery of Nelson’s work. While many of her works broach large subjects of humanity and emotion, a few of her current works seem to delve into the space of the artist’s mind. In pieces like, beneath the page, and deepest layers, the artist has depicted an image of a piece of paper with a biological image painted upon it. These images of the papers rest atop a trompe l’oeil wooden ground. This “image within an image” serves as an undeniably contemporary, self-referential act, indicative of an artist looking within. Here, Nelson seems to be taking a look at her past from a new perspective, still from a distance but with the subjective medium of fine art.